Fate tied into a bookstore

Time feels fluid in the fall.

Blink and I’m 16, watching open-mouthed as the second tower falls from my silent high school physics class. Again and I’m in my final year at college, sliding hardcovers into long rows at Borders not long before it shuttered. Now and I’m 29, calling into the basement in search of my husband — husband — before making a third cup of coffee.

I get lost in the past sometimes. Perhaps we all do? As Spencer and I worked to install the bookcases in the new space at home, I couldn’t stop thinking about where those shelves had come from — and remembering my bookseller days. For as much as I love my newspaper job (and I do), sometimes I fantasize about going back to shilling novels to the masses.

Silly, I know — but I was happy there. Really, really happy. Part of it was just that time of my life: graduating from college, having the first of my “own” money, making new friends. Being surrounded by words and roasting coffee and folks eager for the latest paperback, the newest hardcover.

That was, of course, nearly a decade ago . . . and the world has changed around us. It would never be the same now. That Borders closed and reopened later as a Books-a-Million, and the bones may be the same — eerily similar, actually — but the soul is not.

It shouldn’t feel different, but it does.


I find it hard to go in there, actually . . . though why remains a mystery. I have more books than I could possibly read already — but that hasn’t stopped me before. Part of me feels slightly haunted as I walk the aisles I once knew so well, I guess, looking for familiar faces that have long moved on and away.

For as much as I lobbied for a hometown bookstore, I rarely go in. I talk about it and think about it and plan to, but then I just . . . don’t.

Maybe because I need new memories. In random moments when we’re driving around town, chatting and daydreaming, Spencer and I talk about if we ever would have met without online dating. Though we lived just 20 minutes apart, we moved in such different circles that they rarely would have intersected.

But oddly, we do have mutual friends.

If you had gone to this party . . .
If I’d left work early to . . .
If you’d come into the bookstore . . .

The bookstore is where our lives could have crossed — if only for a moment. Down from New York for an internship the same summer I worked at Borders, Spencer might have found himself in Waldorf looking for a guide or record and seen me there, flush from searching for a Hemingway, Welty or Rowling.

I squint and crane and remember, trying to picture the faces of countless customers I saw each week in the evenings with mass markets in their arms. In the years I asked for Borders Rewards cards and took special orders, gift-wrapped and greeted, I can’t bring up his face among them.

But it might have been there.

Thinking of those happenstance moments — the serendipity — is fun. “Fate” feels like a big word, but it’s easy to believe in sometimes.

Though I once lamented my husband and I don’t have a “meet-cute,” I’ve come to realize that isn’t true at all. There were so many factors that led to us eventually sharing coffee on a windy afternoon, each path a different thread in the tapestry now knitting us together.

When I was brokenhearted and uncertain at Borders, looking for direction and wondering how it would all play out, he could have been there in the maps or movies — a man I didn’t yet know that I would come to know best.

Though cheesy, maybe, the bookcases standing sentinel in our new home are comforting. A reminder of happy days, of a part of my past, the job that really solidified my love for reading and eventually helped me launch this space. And my column. And the rest of my life.

My home library is “real” now! Really real. We’re building it slowly, finding pieces here and there, and I don’t plan to call it finished . . . well, ever, probably.

There’s always another book. Another world.

Slipping into the bookstore


I love getting lost in a bookstore.

Okay, so I don’t really get “lost.” That would require me not really knowing the lay of the land, so to speak, and goodness knows I have plenty of experience wandering among the stacks.

The truth is that, like so many, I’ve started relying on alternate sources for my literature fix. Reviewing books frequently means novels arrive in packages and boxes, mailers and envelopes. I go to the library. I shop online. And, of course, there’s the whole issue of digital books — those electronic ones that pop up in a digital library with the swipe of a finger. My Kindle doesn’t get as much love as my physical books, but I do enjoy having lots of options at once in the palm of my hand.

I can’t quit bookstores, though. When our local Borders closed in 2011, I went into a period of mourning. The local bookstore was more than just a place that sold books, of course: it was a community hub, a hotspot, a place for friends to meet and mingle. In its heyday, Borders buzzed with people and music and life, pure and simple . . . and yes, they sold books. Lots of them. But books, though important, sometimes seemed beside the point.

After Borders liquidated and closed that summer, Spencer drove over to purchase some of the bookshelves which currently take up a quarter of the living room in our apartment (but that’s totally worth it). Word spread that Books-a-Million was planning to purchase and re-open our location in Southern Maryland, rumors that proved true a year ago. When I first popped into the store last summer, I felt anxious that a place I’d loved so well — and spent years as both employee and patron — would be forever changed. You can’t go home again, you know?

But maybe you can. I just re-read my post from last summer, one spilling over with sadness and uncertainty. When BAM! first opened, it didn’t feel like “my bookstore” anymore. The exterior was the same, yes, and the interior resembles the old Borders as well. But it obviously wasn’t Borders, and that hurt. I was deeply emotionally attached to the old place and just couldn’t. let. go.

Life marches forward, though. Much has changed in a year. As I get closer to the wedding and am prepping to move both my personal belongings and offices at work (more change.), I’m growing accustomed to getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s one of my single greatest challenges: adapting. Allowing something new to enter my life without mourning deeply for the old.

I’m getting stronger. I’m getting excited.

I went into Books-a-Million with my parents for the first time in a while last Friday. Where once the store seemed quiet, empty, there were plenty of people padding down the aisles with stacks of books in their hands. We waited in line at the register. It wasn’t as crazy as the old days, sure — but what is? There was a John Mayer playing overhead as soon as we walked in, just like those fall days in 2006, and I thought about the college student who once wandered the same aisles with the latest Harry Potter and a walkie-talkie clipped to her hip. Life was an oyster, and I’m busy finding the pearl.

Seven years later, I still love getting lost in a bookstore — and was thinking about how fortunate I am to be able to slip inside the same bookstore where I spent so many happy days.

Things have changed, but some things stay the same.

And I definitely came home with a book.

A changed, once-sacred space

{Working at Borders, 2006}

My local bookstore just reopened. After losing our Borders last summer, we were without a local hang-out until Books-A-Million took over the former space. We rejoiced! I vowed to actually put my money where my typing is and shop there. (Despite the fact that I buy basically everything online, I’ve tried hard to purchase books only in “real” stores. Corporate or no.)

And then something weird happened.

Despite working for a newspaper, I can be surprisingly slow to learn local news — but the store closed again. Temporarily, I heard. It was something with the roof? A leak? I don’t know. Anyway, it closed for weeks. Seeing the chaos through the plate-glass windows and the dark exterior sign was pretty depressing, honestly. It was PTSD — Borders-style.

But the light shone again. We popped in Tuesday for the first time since BAM! re-opened. I bought Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl because you crazies have been talking about it everywhere, and I can’t stand being out of the In Club. Also, I read 14 pages in what felt like one breath, so.

While waiting for my mother and boyfriend to finish making their rounds of all the usual genres, I found myself . . . lingering. By the displays. Having worked at Borders for years in college, I’m drawn to the familiar fixtures. When BAM! purchased Borders’ old space, the shelves and signage seemed to come with it. Though Spence bought many of Borders’ bookcases for his place, I guess they replaced them? Because the store looks exactly the same.

Entering is always a time-warp. One minute I’m Megan, intrepid 27-year-old columnist, and the next I’m Megan, 21-year-old English major shamelessly draining her bank account on paperbacks with her employee discount. I used to love coming to work — seriously. As much as anyone can love working retail and dealing with the general public, I adored that place. I made so many friends there — people I still think about, people I still miss. The regular customers morphed from strangers to acquaintances, and then to chatty pals. I knew their spouses, their children. Their favorite authors. The way they liked their coffee. By the time I left in 2008, I knew most of their names — and they knew mine.

There was a warmth, a camaraderie. A sense that you were somewhere people met and mingled. Where ideas happened.

It was a really happy place. And time.

Part of my attachment to that job is undoubtedly due to it coinciding with a particular era of my life. I will never again be a freshly-christened college graduate. I will never be 21, or 22, or 23. It will never again be 2006, John Mayer’s just-released “Continuum” on repeat through our faulty speaker system. I will never again feel that untarnished, undecided — and free.

Most days, that’s okay. Good, even. But other times, it stings. Like peroxide. Like salt. Sometimes I want to cry, thinking about that former life — a time when that bookstore was just about my world.

On Tuesday night, the store was deserted. Booksellers milled about with piles of bargain books in their arms, rearranging displays and looking vacantly at their watches. The café was empty save one family in a corner, most of them thumbing away at iPhones. Spencer and I grabbed seats at a rickety table and read for a bit, but it was strange to be in a silent place that was once so teeming with life — one that now sits quiet, neglected. When I worked at Borders, we couldn’t get people out of the café. During holiday hours? We’d have fools camped out until midnight, nursing a single stale cup of coffee from hours before, walled in by stacks of unclaimed books.

Is this how it feels to desperately love something everyone else has abandoned?

The bookseller in me couldn’t help but neaten the displays, aligning edges and straightening stacks. Grabbing books that were tossed aside, patiently walking them back to their proper sections. Spencer once asked me why I do that — “You’re not getting a paycheck anymore” — but I just smiled, shrugged.

“I like it,” I said, and it was true.

Earning a paycheck hadn’t felt like earning a paycheck. It didn’t feel like work.

And I really miss it. More than I ever thought I could.

Just in time for Black Friday: a new bookstore

After lamenting the closing of Borders, our beloved bookstore and the only new book retailer in the tri-county area, rumors began circulating that several chain locations were being purchased by Books-A-Million. While Borders was undergoing bankruptcy proceedings this past summer, BAM made a bid for 30 locations — but were rejected. As our local store liquidated and closed its doors, we drove somberly past the shell of what was once our favorite hang-out. Our bookstore was gone.

But exciting news reached us in October: BAM had, in fact, purchased Borders’ old spot in town. They would be opening again with new inventory. Even without the shelves once holding countless paperbacks and hardcovers, we would have a literary depository again.

And they were right. Over the last month we’ve seen trucks arriving and crews unloading palettes of boxes — a daunting task I remember from my own bookseller days. Friends, family and coworkers all chatted excitedly about how we really were getting a new store, and speculation ran rampant over whether or not they would open in time for the holidays.

The folks at BAM obviously aren’t fools. Not opening before Black Friday and the onslaught of the Christmas shopping season would be a huge financial risk, so it was with great excitement — great excitement — that Spencer and I wandered in last week.

It was a soft opening, I guess; BAM flung open its doors without any fanfare. A small banner on the exterior announced the place was “Now Open,” and that — plus the dozens of cars in the parking lot — was the only thing alerting us to its opening. It was actually really strange walking in again . . . little remodeling was done, leaving the former Borders location mostly intact. The paint and carpet are the same. Even the book genres are located in mostly the same spots, including the children’s and fiction sections — and that was cool, but definitely weird.

After all my sadness and disappointment over losing Borders, it was like my store had been resurrected from the dead. And trust me — I’m totally not complaining. Walking in felt like coming home. But it was a little strange, too, to be in a Borders that wasn’t a Borders.

It’s going to take me a really long time to call it “Books-A-Million,” which is sort of a mouthful. Though I feel silly calling it BAM!

While I’m sorting out my feelings about all that, though, I’ll be off shopping. And just in time for Black Friday.

Borders lives on with us

It’s no secret that the closing of Borders devastated me and countless other readers. Regardless of your feelings on “chain” bookstores, Borders was our only new bookstore in three counties. My closest bookstore is now a Barnes & Noble, and that bad boy is a 45-minute drive up to Annapolis. Ack.

Its loss has already been felt profoundly in my community, and seeing its shuttered doors now makes me feel sick. Though our local branch just closed for good last week, it’s been “closed” to me for a month; I haven’t been able to go in as the shelves grew sparser and Borders was being dismantled. It just made me too sad.

But my boyfriend had a great idea.

When Borders said “everything must go,” they meant it — and that included the hundreds of wooden bookcases that once supported Borders’ wares. As Spencer bought a home this summer, he’s been looking for storage options — and thought Borders’ bookshelves would be a great addition to his place. Though I was initially saddened by the idea of ripping the cases out of the store, I’ve since converted . . . and realize now that if Spence hadn’t taken them, someone else would have.

So he bought quite a few and, with the help of a friend, got them up into the condo (in the middle of a hurricane and flash flood, but that’s another story). We started getting them all screwed in so he could begin filling them last night, and I got to show Spencer my considerable alphabetizing skills — all from my Borders days, of course. We alpha’ed his DVD collection around 9 p.m. and have the first three bays ready to rock and roll.

Sorting through his movies was soothing, and it’s a little weird to see the shelves there — especially when I looked at them for years, working eight- or ten-hour shifts during college — but it’s really nice, too. I feel good that a part of Borders will live on with us, and these bookcases will be cared for by a reader who will think fondly of her days at the store as she fills them: me!

And don’t worry . . . I’m sure we will have them filled in no time. More bookshelves just mean more books, right?

So long, my friend. So long.

I’m not good with goodbyes. When I finally quit my job at Borders years ago, it was without fanfare — mostly because I knew that I would sob like a child if someone extended kind words or rumpled me into a hug.

Our Borders — the sole bookstore in our town of more than 50,000 people, of the entire Southern Maryland area — opened in the ’90s to great excitement. My dad, a sportswriter, had the very first book signing in our Waldorf, Md., location. I have distinct memories of going there as a kid with my parents, paging through the store’s vast selection of CDs for the section labeled “HANSON” and chatting with others wandering the aisles.

I love the smell of books, wood and coffee. I love the chatter that erupts from the cafe at strange intervals, or the way groups of people mingle in the same space while exploring vastly different books. The magazine readers mix with the chai tea drinkers; the photography-book-lovers chat with the YA fans. We’re all here in the same place — a complicated tangle of community.

And Borders is our community bookstore. There are no independent bookstores here — and the only other book vendors? Target, Wal-Mart, Costco. We have a few secondhand bookstores in the area, but most are at least 40 minutes away and without new titles. The next-closest “new books” bookstore is Barnes & Noble in Annapolis, and I’ve always been a loyal Borders fan.

But our Borders is closing. All Borders stores are closing. Save a deal with Books-A-Million that would continue to operate 30 stores, including ours, Southern Maryland will have no bookstore.

I’m devastated.

I’ve already written extensively about my Borders memories, both as a customer and an employee. I made countless friends there, clocked countless hours there, bought countless books there. Knowing that our store will soon close opens a bottomless pit in my stomach, which has been sick since the news broke earlier this week. On my birthday.

I knew Borders was on borrowed time — for many, many reasons — but the cold, hard reality of the liquidation process is awful. I can’t imagine walking into that store with “Everything must go!” signage hanging from the balustrades where we once dangled streamers for Halloween events or the “Harry Potter” midnight release parties. I don’t want to see people picking clean the carcasses of the bookshelves, benches and tables where I whiled away so many hours. And later, when it’s all over, I don’t want to drive by the empty storefront.

I’m sending others out to do reconnaissance and maybe say a fond farewell for me to the store that once felt like home. But you won’t find me going through bins or stocking up on back titles or rummaging through shelving. I want to think of Borders the way it was. I want to think of my Borders the way it used to be.

I can’t say goodbye.

My Borders isn’t closing, but I still feel sad

The summer before my senior year of college, I left my internship at a D.C. newspaper and looked for part-time work in my hometown. The natural choice was Borders, a place where I could get paid (paid!) to talk about books all day. The salary was decent; the staff seemed friendly. The lovely aroma of fresh coffee immediately permeated my pores and gave me the extra jolt I was seeking. Both a refuge and solid employment, my gig at Borders seemed like the perfect opportunity.

And it was. The only reason Borders wasn’t my first job ever was due to the 18-and-over employment policy. When I applied for jobs fresh out of high school, I was a 17-year-old kid who wanted spending cash. Getting to work at Borders came three years later and, excited beyond words, I started my part-time shifts with the idea that I would work there until I graduated from college and had to seek out full-time, career-related employment.

Well, I got a full-time job. In 2007, I was hired as an assistant editor at the newspaper where I still work and write. But when the time came to break ties with Borders, offering myself fully to the paper that was my “big girl job,” I just couldn’t do it. The idea of leaving the bookstore was unfathomable.

Most of the time, I loved the people. Even when they were rude and terrible and ignorant. Even when they sought a book with no description other than “it’s blue” or “it’s written by a famous person.” The jolt I received when I actually could find that book — that crazy, elusive, damn-near-impossible book — was a high unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I loved giving recommendations and receiving them from others, watching with understanding as customers’ eyes lit up when describing a favorite read. It felt like magic.

If I thought I knew lots about reading before, working at Borders opened up a whole new world for me. Authors previously undiscovered now littered my shelves, their tomes procured with the awesome employee discount. On the nights I would go straight from my 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. full-time gig at the paper to the store, staying until 11 p.m. or later, I discovered the lovely aroma of coffee and chai tea. I made great friends at Borders, all of us united through our “in the trenches” mentality.

More than anything, I just looked forward to being there. The smell of fresh books, stripped open from heavy palates, was intoxicating. I loved store events like our midnight release party for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when I hosted a party for more than 1,000 people and worked until 4 a.m. I loved chatting with other readers and feeding off our mutual love of literature. I met a boyfriend there. Ran into countless friends there.

In our town, which has no other bookstore, Borders is the epicenter of life.

I didn’t want to leave. When I visit the store now and see many familiar faces — you know, minus the whole “you don’t have a bun in the oven, do you?” debacle — I feel a jolt of sadness and whimsy for life back at the bookstore. After receiving a great promotion at the paper, I finally quit my part-time job there in October 2008. I visit often and still feel like, if called upon, I could hop behind the information desk or man a register without trouble. It’s just the sort of job that sticks with you.

On Feb. 16, Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and announced they would be closing 200 stores (click for full list of store closings). When my dad emailed me that spreadsheet, my stomach dipped down to my shoes. The idea of Borders — our Borders, the site of countless dates and late nights and chats and coffee runs — closing was hideous. It actually made me feel sick.

I’m happy to say, friends, that our Borders in Southern Maryland is safe.

But so many others aren’t.

I understand why this happened. Countless articles have come out about why the chain, once so prominent, is teetering on the edge of extinction. The recession; the rise of e-books; the abundance of cheap books online; Borders failing to keep up with market trends. All of these things make sense. They suck, yes, but they make sense.

But what I can’t understand is a town without a bookstore. If our Borders in Waldorf, Md., had closed, we would be without any book retailer in three counties. There are no independent bookshops peddling anything more than old, dusty paperbacks, and there’s only so much you can find at Target or Wal-Mart. Friends, without a Borders, we would have been book destitute.

And I would have been devastated.

Though we’re out of the red zone, I feel terrible for the cities that are losing their Borders locations — and the employees who are suddenly out of work. I feel bad, too, for the publishers and distributors and authors who are still trying to make a living in a tough business during a tough recession — and how Borders’ closings are affecting them.

I feel sad for the couples who can’t meet at Borders for coffee on a first date or the families who covet their time at the store paging through the children’s section. And who hasn’t spent a lazy Sunday wandering around the store’s bookcases, admiring recent releases and feeling the weight of a hardcover in their hands?

Is everything with the chain sunshine and roses? No, of course not. Sometimes customer service sucks, and I get that. But it doesn’t make me love Borders any less.

I’m hugging my own store a little closer these days. And if yours dodged the bankruptcy bullet, I hope you will, too.